Animals speaking for themselves.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Animals loom large in picture-book land. Many of them, from Peter Rabbit to Russell Hoban's fast-talking badger, Frances, and Kevin Henkes's strong-willed mouse, Lilly, are really surrogates for small children. Here are some new titles in which animals star as themselves.

TIGER'S STORYBy Harriet Blackford Boxer Books. $12.95 (ages 3-6)

In Manya Stojic's spectacular paintings, with their fierce slashes of orange, black and grass-green, the "small, strong, stripy cub" of the title is as adorable as Tai Shan. But Blackford, a zoologist by training, keeps the focus firmly on the factual. "What's this? Another tiger's smell . . . . Tiger freezes. He knows he shouldn't be here in this other tiger's territory." For the maternal viewpoint, see Jan Chapman's Tigress, just out in paperback (Candlewick, $6.99). The pictures, by Nick Dowson, are more conventional than Stojic's, but the text is as vivid as it is informative: "The sun turns tiger fur oven-hot, so . . . the tigress heads for the lake." Who knew tigers were among the few big cats to enjoy swimming?

MY CAT COPIES MEBy Yoon-duck Kwon Kane/Miller. $15.95 (ages 4-8)

"My cat is very independent," begins this charming picture book from Korea. "But if I pretend I don't see her, or if I walk away, then she'll follow me and try to play. And then, my cat copies me." Small girl and cat are shown tunneling under newspapers, hiding in a closet, watching bugs and so on. Then, in a subtle twist, the shy child tries copying the cat instead. Revelations follow: how to look into the darkness without fear, how to climb high and see far, how to stretch, even how to make new friends. Kwon's pictures effectively blend traditional Korean touches -- fabrics, pottery, screens -- with such modern, everyday kids' stuff as toys, bikes, sneakers and a computer.

OLD MOTHER BEARBy Victoria Miles Chronicle. $16.95 (ages 4-8)

Miles tells the story of a 24-year-old she-bear, based on an animal observed in a sanctuary in British Columbia, who gives birth to her last litter then spends three years teaching the cubs how to survive. In their third summer, they leave her. Months later, the toothless, arthritic old bear crawls up to a den she knew from long ago. "In the night, a crying storm descended upon the slope. But the grizzly knew nothing of it. She was already gone, past drowse and beyond winter." Be warned: This snippet of natural history, lit by Molly Bang's quietly beautiful chalk paintings, is a heartbreaker.

WHITE OWL, BARN OWLBy Nicola Davies Candlewick. $16.99 (ages 4-8)

One winter day, a little boy helps his grandfather make a big wooden box, which they set high in an oak tree "for the barn owls to nest in." It's a long shot, but "one spring night, just as the sky went pink, a pale face looked out of our box. . . . An owl!" With a big assist from Michael Foreman's shimmering watercolors, British zoologist Nicola Davies captures the bird's ethereal beauty -- "It was so light, it hardly bent the twig it perched on. I could see the tiny ruff of feathers around its face, like stiff lace." But each lyrical observation is backed up with scientific fact and an eye to owls' proficiency as killers: "Their bones are hollow"; "the heart-shaped ruff . . . helps guide sound to its super-sharp ears." A useful perspective for kids who think owls can be toted around like Harry Potter's Hedwig.

THE ZOOBy Suzy Lee Kane/Miller. $15.95 (ages 4-8)

In another thoughtful Korean picture book, a small girl visits the zoo with her parents. It's a dull place, all gray asphalt, gray people and gray walls and cages. But there's one untethered spot of color that only the child notices: a peacock, which entices her away on an alternative tour. As her parents trail between exhibits on their gray pages, rainbow spreads show her wallowing with hippos and elephants in the wild, sliding down a giraffe's neck and soaring with birds. At the end, her frantic parents find her asleep on a bench, suggesting that the escapade was a dream. But what does the dream signify? A tribute to zoos' effect on the imagination -- or a criticism of their effect on animals? Not bad going for a book of just 55 words.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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